A full 45 weeks after qualifying began, Atletico Madrid came out on top in a tournament that had its fair share of surprises...
Only six weeks after Falcao's header gave Porto a 1-0 victory over Braga in the 2010-11 Europa League final in Dublin, the 2011-12 competition got underway in Yerevan, Armenia, with local club Banants taking on Georgian side Metalurg Rustavi. In fact, the 2010-11 edition ended in May and the 2011-12 tournament began in June, and Fulham were one of 50 teams who entered in the first of four qualifying rounds. The Cottagers, who qualified via the Fair Play system, were the only side to successfully negotiate every qualifying round, playing eight matches and travelling to Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, Croatia and Ukraine just to earn a place in the group stage.
The qualifying rounds provided their fair share of shock results and off-field controversies. Zilina, who had played in the group stage of the previous year's Champions League, failed to make it beyond round 2 of the qualifiers. Two teams, Olympiakos Volou and Sion, were thrown out of the competition for match fixing and fielding ineligible players respectively. The second leg of the Athletic Bilbao-Trabzonspor qualifier was not played as the Turkish side were admitted to the Champions League following Fenerbahce's involvement in a match-fixing scandal. There were several big name casualties before the group stage even got underway. Panthinaikos, Rosenborg, Spartak Moscow, Rangers, Sparta Prague, Roma and Sevilla all suffered surprise defeats in the qualifiers. The biggest shock of all, though, was Partizan Belgrade losing 2-1 at home to rank Irish outsiders Shamrock Rovers, a club that had almost gone out of business only five years previously.
That was as good as it got for Rovers, who then became the only one of the 48 teams in the group stage to lose all six of their matches. Fellow minnows AEK Larnaca from Cyprus fared a bit better, accumulating five points, including a draw away to Schalke 04. Four English sides made it to this stage of the tournament but just one, Stoke, advanced to the last 32. Fulham and Birmingham were agonisingly close to making it while Tottenham, who fielded shadow teams in most of their matches, never really went all out to qualify. There was also disappointment for Celtic, who had actually lost in the qualifiers but got through because of Sion's breach of competition rules. The Bhoys could only win one of their six group games but they had comparatively stiff opposition in their group. Big-spending Paris Saint Germain failed to make it out of their group, although like Spurs they had prioritised domestic matters. One team, Anderlecht, did manage a 100% group stage record.
In what was fast becoming a European season full of surprises, the much-maligned Europa League got an unexpected touch of glamour after the Champions League group stage fallers were parachuted in. Manchester United, Manchester City, Valencia, Ajax and holders Porto all joined the Europa League in the round of 32, the draw for which paired Ajax against United and Porto against City. Roberto Mancini's men made surprisingly light work of the Portuguese side, but Alex Ferguson's charges nearly blew a 3-0 aggregate lead over the Dutch champions. Stoke's remarkable journey ended at the hands of Valencia, but the Potters bowed out having given it absolutely everything. Braga, runners-up in 2011, were eliminated by Besiktas.
The two Manchester clubs were the bookies' favourites to lift the trophy as the round of 16 got underway, although both were soon in for a rude awakening. United were taught a footballing lesson by Athletic Bilbao, who won home and away while doing their reputation no harm at all. City were losing 3-0 on aggregate at one stage to Sporting Lisbon, and though they retrieved the deficit they crashed out on away goals. The frenetic second leg at Eastlands almost saw an incredible conclusion, with Joe Hart heading just wide in the dying seconds, having gone up for a City corner kick.
It was left to Spain and Germany to fly the flag for the quarter-finals, with those two nations providing five of the eight teams that were left. Of the eight Champions League dropouts, only Valencia made it this far. Germany's involvement in the tournament ended with Schalke and Hannover losing, while Metalist Kharkiv and AZ Alkmaar also exited. The Spanish trio of Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia were still going strong, though, with Sporting Lisbon maintaining Portugese interest. Three Spanish sides and one from Portugal in the last four - a reversal of the situation from 2011, when Porto, Braga, Benfica and Villarreal made up the semi-finals.
Atletico took a giant step towards the final with a 4-2 win over Valencia in the first leg while Bilbao were given a reality check after losing 2-1 in Lisbon. They turned it around in San Mames, though, with Fernando Llorente's last-gasp goal sparing them from extra time. Atletico won again in Valencia to set up the second all-Spanish final in this competition, after Sevilla-Espanyol in 2007. Thousands of red and white-bedecked Spaniards flocked to Bucharest for what promised to be an exciting, closely-fought final. Instead it was disappointingly one-sided, although the quality of Falcao's two first half goals lit up the occasion. Bilbao had been a pleasure to watch in previous games but never got going in the biggest match of all and Atletico, who won the Europa League in 2010, swept to a 3-0 victory, Diego worsening the damage late on.
It's a tournament that remains unloved in anglophone nations, although it can often throw up some exciting affairs and, as this season demonstrated, quite a few surprises. Some of the biggest names in European football participated this year and there will be some heavy hitters in the 2012-13 edition as well, such as Liverpool, Lyon, Inter Milan and Marseille, and possibly Atletico Madrid and Chelsea too. It may continue to live in the shadow of the Champions League, but close followers of Europa League football know that it is a competition worth watching.